Crime and Punishment in Texas in the 1990s

Policy Reports | Crime

No. 237
Thursday, November 30, 2000
by Morgan O. Reynolds


Texas has shown in recent years that punishment deters crime and that when crime does not pay, criminals commit fewer crimes. When the price of crime - the expected punishment for committing a crime - dropped precipitously in Texas during the 1980s, the drop was accompanied by a surge in crime rates. A prison building boom enabled the state to increase expected punishment in the 1990s - and crime rates fell. In addition to increasing the probability of adult criminals going to prison, the state toughened its juvenile justice system in the late 1990s - and experienced a drop in what had been a rising amount of juvenile crime.

Reducing crime in Texas, even holding it at its current level, requires continuing vigilance. By both word and deed, it is up to criminal justice officials and the general public to persuade juveniles and other would-be offenders that crime does not pay.

"Prevention or prison appear to be the primary tools that government can use to control crime."

The nation has two million prison and jail inmates, and the debate is growing about how to slow this expensive and unfortunate growth in our nation's prison population. The ideal solution would be if people stopped committing crimes. That being unlikely, prevention or prison appear to be the primary tools that government can use to control crime. Yet federal programs to reduce the so-called root causes have done vastly more harm than good. The highest social ("root cause") correlate with crime rates is births out of wedlock, and federal programs have done far more to promote fatherlessness than prevent it. That leaves get-tough policies as the primary control tool.

With prisoners already serving long terms, the state should shift its criminal justice resources at the margin toward raising the certainty that criminals will go to prison for serious crimes and reducing relapses into crime upon release. The former policy implies hiring more police per serious crime; the latter suggests increasing the effectiveness of the corrections experience.

NOTE: Nothing written here should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the National Center for Policy Analysis or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.

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